Passing a new Voting Rights Act in the GOP-dominated House was never going to be easy, supporters acknowledge. But with a powerful Republican such as Eric Cantor as an ally, hope flickered for nearly a year.
Then came June 10 and the shocking primary defeat that tanked Cantor's congressional career — taking with it, in all likelihood, any prospect for an update of the landmark 1965 civil rights legislation that had been weakened by a 2013 Supreme Court ruling.
Even with Cantor as majority leader, said a House aide close to the VRA negotiations, "I would have speculated that it was certainly a very steep climb. That it was unlikely, but there was still hope."
But with the Virginia Republican out of the mix, the aide said, "it doesn't appear we're going to see it this Congress."
It's a disappointing turn that has some Democrats wondering if Cantor ever deserved the benefit of a doubt on minority voting rights. "I really wanted to believe he was sincere," Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., a member of the Congressional Black Caucus who helped draft the VRA revision, told CQ Roll Call. "As I look back on it now, I probably gave him too much credit."
Ultimately, no matter what Cantor did, it's what he didn't do — or wasn't able to do — that's bound to be his legacy on the issue.
A Glimmer of Hope Cantor first got people’s attention on the issue in late June 2013, the same day the Supreme Court struck down the VRA’s key enforcement provision: The mandate that 15 states with a history of racial discrimination at the polls had to get federal approval before changing voting rules and regulations.
The majority of the justices ruled that the formula for determining which states had to submit the “preclearance requirement” was outdated, putting the onus on Congress to revise it.
Democrats immediately railed against the decision and rallied behind finding a legislative fix, while many Republicans hailed the ruling as one that finally removed stigmas of racism that their states — predominantly Southern — had been battling for decades.
Only a handful of GOP lawmakers were willing to stand up and publicly accept the Supreme Court’s challenge to rewrite the preclearance formula.
The most senior and influential among them was Cantor.
Releasing a brief statement recalling the formative experience of his pilgrimage through the South with black civil rights leader and long-time Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., Cantor said he supported finding consensus on a VRA for the 21st century.
He didn't offer a proposal for how to proceed or any indication of what kind of bill he would support, yet colleagues on both sides of the aisle were stunned by the No. 2 House Republican’s forthrightness on the issue. They saw a glimmer of hope that a legislative solution to the Supreme Court’s decision might actually be possible.
One Year Later Cantor’s endorsement was the first – and only – such statement of support to come from the House Republican leadership ranks, making it more and more crucial to the bottom line.
His staff was engaged on the issue , sitting in on high-level meetings with other congressional offices to discuss a path forward. Cantor personally spoke to stakeholders, among them Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md.
But the grunt work fell to Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, who was the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee the last time Congress passed an extension of the VRA in 2006. This time around, the Wisconsinite worked alongside Ohio Republican Steve Chabot and a handful of CBC Democrats — Butterfield, Assistant Leader James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, Judiciary ranking member John Conyers Jr. of Michigan and Rep. Robert C. Scott of Virginia.
By January , the group had formally introduced the Voting Rights Amendment Act, which, among other things, reduced the number of states subject to the pre clearance requirement to just four: Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Georgia.
Plenty of Democrats were unhappy with the compromise, saying that if enacted it would allow a dozen culpable states to bypass federal scrutiny for actively disenfranchising black voters.
That discontent wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, however, as any successful VRA legislation was going to have to be bipartisan — palatable to enough Republicans that they would feel comfortable signing on as co-sponsors. Worries that the bill wasn’t progressive enough actually provided a good line of defense for GOP lawmakers inclined to support it.
Clyburn promoted another strategy to make the bill less intimidating for Republicans — to keep the co-sponsor list from being too Democratic top-heavy, only Democrats who brought Republicans along with them would be allowed to sign on.
The rule would apply to everyone, including himself, Clyburn told CQ Roll Call.
“I tried to find a Republican,” Clyburn said. “I wanted a Republican to be from my state. I could have gotten other Republicans to go on the bill but I just said, ‘I have Republicans from my state who said they believe in voting rights, okay? So sign up on this bill with me.’ I didn’t get any of them to sign.”
One Republican in particular never signed onto the bill, and never said he if would support it: Cantor.
“We saw no clear evidence that Mr. Cantor was lining up Republican support for the bill or making any movement in the Republican Conference," Butterfield said.
Hoyer, in a briefing with reporters on April 1, said he wasn’t giving up on Cantor.
“I don’t want to mislead you that we’ve said ‘We can do this, or we can do that.’ That’s not it,” Hoyer said, “but that [Cantor] believes if we can find areas of agreement, that we ought to try to move forward. So that’s positive.”
By the end of June, with Cantor due to step down from leadership on July 31, Clyburn was letting everybody sign onto the bill regardless of whether they had a Republican partner.
"We aren't going to get anywhere on this," Clyburn told his colleagues.
Looking Back When Cantor said he was interested in helping pass a fix to the VRA, Democrats said they couldn’t ignore it, even if they weren’t sure they actually believed him.
“What I try to do in carrying out my responsibilities in the Congress is stay prepared in case opportunity strikes,” Clyburn said. “I went through those motions and I did what was necessary to ensure we were prepared in case lightening were to strike.”
Those motions, for Clyburn, were to take meetings with Cantor and his aides and forge ahead as though a VRA rewrite were within the realm of possibility.
Clyburn and Butterfield both said there was also some deference to Sensenbrenner and Chabot, whom they felt were “genuine” and “sincere” in their efforts.
But neither lawmaker was able to offer a fully formed theory as to why Cantor would insist that he supported revising the VRA if he actually had no intention of acting.
“I think he was conflicted, all over the map,” Butterfield said. “I don’t believe Cantor, at his heart, being from a Southern state, really wanted to see a strong enforcement … Generally speaking, Southern Republicans have disliked [the preclearance formula] from its inception.”
Clyburn said that Cantor was “unreliable,” but also that he was unable to work within the structure of his conference: “It’s the proverbial tail wagging the dog. There are 42 to 50 people in that conference who are in fact dictating the outcomes.”
The GOP aide close to negotiations acknowledged that it was a hard sell to House Republicans from the beginning, but not because they didn’t want to see their states subjected to the preclearance requirement.
The aide said actually many GOP lawmakers blamed their reluctance on the "politicization" of the Justice Department under Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who last summer filed a DOJ lawsuit to force Texas to get federal permission for all proposed changes to state election law.
That move was not taken well by the House’s largest Republican state delegation. Asked at the time what effect Holder’s actions might have on ongoing discussions about updating the VRA, Texas Republican Joe L. Barton put it bluntly: "Ain’t gonna happen ."
Democrats also created some mischief. Clyburn told CQ Roll Call that whenever members were turned away from signing onto the bill for not bringing Republican co-sponsors with them, those members would then just go to Sensenbrenner to get permission, and the co-sponsor list became disproportionately “blue.”
With House Democrats in the minority, it makes sense that they would blame Cantor for not pushing for action while he had the chance, even if it meant standing up to the naysayers or those who would rather stay on the sidelines.
"I continue to urge my Republican colleagues to work with us to take action in September," Hoyer said in a statement.
In the meantime, John A. Boehner and newly elected Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy have remained mostly silent, as has new Majority Whip Steve Scalise, who isn’t likely to be a fan of the Voting Rights Amendment Act because it targets his home state of Louisiana. Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., still won't commit to using his panel to advance the legislation or something like it.
“Moving forward with this legislation does not depend on one individual,” a Democratic leadership aide concluded, “and it never did.”
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